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Searching for a moral perspective. John Fowles scans past for that which he can't find in the `amoral' present

By Hilary DeVriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 8, 1985



Boston

In his latest book, ``A Maggot,'' British novelist John Fowles describes both a main character and himself as ``a child before the real now; far happier out of it, in a narrative past or a prophetic future, [or] . . . the imaginary present.'' It is in person, however, that the author comes closest to embodying his own epigraphic lines.

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``I suppose it's because I'm looking for a moral perspective on our own age always,'' says Fowles during one of his infrequent interview abroad, a rare interruption to his reclusive life in rural England. ``That's really the main reason for going into the past and the future.''

Indeed, if anything characterizes this best-selling author of seven works of fiction, including ``The French Lieutenant's Woman,'' ``The Collector,'' ``The Magus,'' and ``Daniel Martin,'' it is this restless, almost unquenchable, moral intelligence.

In the nearly 40 years he has been writing, Fowles has fused an existentialist's preoccupation with individual choice to an 18th-century moral perspective, all leavened with a wry, if occasionally self-mocking, modern voice.

The resulting body of work (``A Maggot'' is his 14th book) is a product rare among writers. Not only has Fowles achieved critical and commercial success -- Anthony Burgess called ``The French Lieutenant's Woman'' one of the best novels published in English since 1939 -- but

his position is antithetical to that of the modern novelist. He is a writer with a calling, a man unshy about his purpose. ``For me this remains an amoral age,'' he says.

Book reviews, which Fowles typically disdains, have been mixed. Critics have found ``A Maggot'' long on quirky technique and short on pure narrative. The author is not easily cowed. ``I do like straight narrative,'' he says, ``but I think nowadays oblique ways of telling stories are probably more to cultivated tastes.''

For Fowles, ``A Maggot'' remains the result of an intensely personal ``whim or quirk'' -- the original, if now obsolete, meaning of ``maggot.'' In this instance, the maggot was a persistent visual image in the author's imagination: ``a small group of travellers, faceless . . . went in my mind towards an event.'' Fowles fused that motif with an interest in the Shakers, that 18th-century sect of puritanical Protestants who originated in England but later prospered in the United Sta tes.

With a face more finely chiseled than it appears in his familiar bushy photographs, Fowles presents in person an almost perfect portrait of the English country gentleman. He is polite, almost shy, to a fault. During an interview he leans forward, cocking his ear for questions, answering in his softly accented voice. Modest about his achievements, Fowles is also unflaggingly erudite about nearly everything else. His almost global concern for the moral fabric of mankind is everywhere evident in his conver sation.

``In parts of every Western country is this dominance of self over how one sees the world. I think, for me, it's outrageous now. Nobody knows how to live simply anymore. . . . It's this kind of morality that does really worry me.''

For Fowles, the role of dissenters -- historically, politically, and personally -- is sacrosanct.

Now, in ``A Maggot,'' Fowles has created what may be his most overt morality tale yet. His third historical novel, the book traces the author's usual theme of individual freedom through a complex narrative that is part detective story, part science fiction, part gothic horror tale, and part historical narrative. As is also typical of Fowles, the main character is a strong if enigmatic woman. In this case, she is an actual historical figure, Rebecca Lee, the mother of Ann Lee, founder of the American Sha ker movement.

``By setting [the novel] back in the 18th century, one thinks of religion then as one would think of politics today,'' says Fowles. ``In other words, as a massive hope for a whole range of feelings and convictions [beyond] just religion.''